Charting a new course with technology
“There has been a lot of changes, both in economic climate and in the builder climate,” explained Brad Pearce, co-owner of Front Range Stone. “Looking at what people went through from 2008 to 2010, we refined our fabrication process. Fabricators tend to go one of two ways. They either stop spending, or they continue investing in the business and see the value in mechanization and process improvement to ultimately reduce overhead. It may seem counter-intuitive to spend over $1 million or more to save money, but that’s what we did. We had been running our CNCs since 2003, but we didn’t have a fully digital process.”
Front Range Stone has invested in a broad range of new digital technology, software and CNC equipment over the past two-and-a-half years. These investments were added to an existing machinery lineup that includes Intermac Master Stone 1500 as well as a Comandulli Synthesis edge profiling machine and a Marmo Meccanica LCV711M polisher for backsplashes.
“In August of 2011, we took delivery of our first saw/waterjet, a Park Fusion dual-table 4245 that enabled us to go completely digital,” Pearce said. “Most of the other processes had stalled out in 2008-2009 with the tough business climate we were all faced with. We also took delivery of two Park Titan [CNC stoneworking centers] in 2011 and early 2012, as well as a third [in late 2012]. These, combined with existing equipment, gives us four fully operational CNC machines. We also still employ the use of the inline backsplash polisher and Comandulli Synthesis for kitchens with standard edges.”
According to Pearce, the addition of the bridge/saw waterjet was the first step toward creating an all-digital process. “We did a lot of research, and when we made the investment in the dual-table Fusion 4245, that was the last piece of the puzzle that we needed to get our shop to be operating more digitally,” he said. “Prior to that, we were cutting everything on bridge saws, and we were templating with cardboard. Then we were digitizing the cardboard templates to get it into our system.”
A digital process
The use of advanced technology starts at the templating stage. “We have gone to completely digital templating using Laser Products LT-55 laser system, which all of our templaters use on a daily basis,” Pearce said. “The digital files are easily integrated into our CAD production software, ensuring accurate production of the job.”
The next step in the process takes place at Front Range Stone’s facility, and it again involves modern technology. “We bought the Pathfinder slab photo equipment from Park, and Slabsmith software is integrated into the process,” Pearce said. “Internally, we have production programmers that decide what the jobs will look like, rather than the sawyer doing it. Using the software and the Fusion, we are getting better yield out of each slab, and each job is much improved.”
Pearce added that the Slabsmith software can be used to show the job layout to customers before any cutting is done. “We do it on difficult jobs or more custom jobs,” Pearce said. “Sometimes people have preferences, and it is a good way to give them peace of mind. For more elaborate designs, we will get the customers involved. There aren’t usually a lot of changes, but there’s something about letting them see it. It gives them a comfort level that sets you apart.”
Once the pieces are cut to size, they are processed on the CNCs. “The Park Titan 1800s have a large bed, and there is a consistency of cutting on the Fusion and then placing them on CNCs that has really helped us in what we are producing,” Pearce said. “With the Titans, we can load 60 to 70 feet on each table run, which goes for 2 ½ hours from start to finish. Our goal is to run three to four turns per CNC during a typical day shift. We are using the Intermac 1500 for single sink runs or vanities.”
Material is maneuvered through the shop using a 154-foot-long crane, which is equipped with three vacuum lifters from Wood’s Powr-Grip.
With all of the technology in place, the manpower requirements of the shop have been reduced. “We operate the stone fabrication shop with fewer people, however there has been a shift in personnel to programming and material handling” Pearce said. “We had been labor intensive, with lots of finishers and lots of people working. The biggest change for us is reducing the overall labor and gaining efficiency by investing in the process. In an eight-hour shift with six workers, including two finishers, we can process 800 to 1,200 square feet of stone and quartz product.”
Overall, Front Range Stone has a workforce of 70, including the shop, installers, templaters, office staff and sales personnel. “In 2010, we went through the MIA Accreditation process, and we are still the only fabricator in Colorado with that distinction,” Pearce said.
Sales and marketing
Today, Front Range Stone’s client base is diverse in terms of client type as well as geographically. “We are seeing some remodel work, working with regional and national builders in Denver,” Pearce said. “We are doing commercial work as well. We still do quite a bit of Big Box work, which really helped us through the recession -- not having to chase every order for the last few years. We are working in Lowe’s stores in the state of Colorado and Home Depots, as well as Costco. We are processing 70% natural stone, although quartz seems to be increasing.”
Following a popular trend, Front Range Stone is also processing marble countertops, although Pearce stressed that communication with the homeowners is critical for these jobs. “The education process for the customer needs to be very high with marble,” he said. “Some of the quartz brands have developed white tones, which are some of our best sellers.”
Front Range Stone covers a broad territory that goes well beyond the Denver Metropolitan Area. “With our store alignments, we cover from Pueblo, CO, in the far south of the state, into Cheyenne, WY, north of us, and to Grand Junction, CO, to the west.”
A total of 14 installation crews are on the road for Front Range Stone, with each crew having two members.
Speaking on challenges, Pearce said the company makes an effort to maintain costs and to find skilled workers. “There aren’t so many floating around anymore. Every trade in construction is struggling from the same thing.”
Overall, business appears to be on the rise, according to Pearce. “From 2010 to 2011, we saw some improvement,” he said. “We had nice increases in 2011 in all segments, and in 2012, the first four months were a little quieter than I thought it would be, but then there was a lot more activity across the board. I would expect 2013 to be slightly better than 2012, and in 2014, we will be back to more sustainable healthy business.”
Front Range Stone
Type of work: Countertops for Big Box retailers; remodels for builders; commercial work
Machinery: Fusion dual-table 4245 bridge saw/waterjet and three Titan 1800 CNC stoneworking centers from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN; Master Stone 1500 CNC stoneworking center and Master Stone 33 CNC stoneworking center from Intermac of Italy; Synthesis edge profiling machine from Comandulli of Italy; LCV 711M backsplash profiling machine from Marmo Meccanica of Italy; vacuum lifters from Wood’s Powr-Grip; LT-55 templating systems from Laser Products of Romeoville, IL; Pathfinder slab photo equipment from Park Industries; Slabsmith nesting software from Northwood Designs of Antwerp, NY
Number of Employees:70, including the shop, installers, templaters, office staff and sales personnel
Production Rate: 800 to 1,000 square feet per day